February 3, 2012

Why most Facebook users get more than they give

Most Facebook users receive more from their Facebook friends than they give

Facebook users have fewer friends than their friends do

Washington (February 2, 2012) – Most Facebook users receive more from their Facebook friends than they give, according to a new study that for the first time combines server logs of Facebook activity with survey data to explore the structure of Facebook friendship networks and measures of social well-being.

These data were then matched with survey responses. And the new findings show that over a one-month period:

  • 40% of Facebook users in our sample made a friend request, but 63% received at least one request
  • Users in our sample pressed the like button next to friends’ content an average of 14 times, but had their content “liked” an average of 20 times
  • Users sent 9 personal messages, but received 12
  • 12% of users tagged a friend in a photo, but 35% were themselves tagged in a photo

“The explanation for this pattern is fascinating for a couple of reasons,” noted Prof. Keith Hampton, the lead author of the Pew Internet report, Why most Facebook users get more than they give. “First, it turns out there are segments of Facebook power users who contribute much more content than the typical user. Most Facebook users are moderately active over a one-month time period, so highly active power users skew the average. Second, these power users constitute about 20%-30% of Facebook users, but the striking thing is that there are different power users depending on the activity in question. One group of power users dominates friending activity. Another dominates ‘liking’ activity. And yet another dominates photo tagging.”  

Another surprising finding in this analysis: Your friends on Facebook have more friends than you do. The average person in our sample had 245 Facebook friends. However, the average friend of users in the sample had 359 Facebook friends of their own. This finding was nearly universal for people with lots of friends and people with a relatively modest number. Only the top 10% of users with the largest friends lists have friends who on average had smaller networks than their own.

“This actually mirrors what happens in friendship networks outside of Facebook,” said Hampton. He noted that sociologist Scott Feld explained this seeming paradox by finding that a small number of people are isolated, so they do not appear in most people’s networks. But popular people appear repeatedly. As a result, on average your friends almost always appear to have more friends than you. 

The Pew Internet report is built around a national phone survey of 2,255 American adults that was conducted in November 2010 by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Respondents were asked if they would be willing to share logs of their Facebook activity. Some 269 of the Facebook users recruited through a national, random, representative telephone survey granted Facebook permission to release data on their use of the service. The survey and analysis of Facebook data was conducted by Keith N. Hampton, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication at Rutgers School of Communication & Information, Lauren Sessions Goulet, a doctoral candidate from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Cameron Marlow, a research scientist from Facebook, and the Pew Internet Project.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • Facebook networks are sparsely interconnected. A friend of a friend is usually a friend too, but on average only 12% of all possible connections between Facebook friends were present. Most Facebook friends are not directly connected to each other.
  • Making new Facebook friends associated with higher levels of social support, while those who make frequent status updates receive more emotional support.  In our survey we asked people about the amount of support that they receive. An analysis of Facebook activity logs reveals that those who received and accepted more Facebook friend requests in the month of the survey reported higher levels of social support. Similarly, those who posted more status updates reported higher levels of emotional support.
  • Facebook users can reach a mean number (average) of more than 150,000 other Facebook users through Facebook friends of friends. A typical or median user can reach over 31,000 people.  At two degrees of separation (friends-of-friends), Facebook users in our sample on average reach 156,569 other Facebook users. However, a small number of Facebook users, who tend to have especially large friends lists that are less connected exaggerate the reach of the typical Facebook user. The median Facebook user from our sample could reach 31,170 people through friends-of-friends.

”A small number of Facebook users have disproportionately large, sparsely connected friends lists,” noted Lauren Sessions Goulet, co-author of the report. “These extreme users can reach more than five times as many people through their friends-of-friends than the typical user, giving the appearance of a much wider reach than the majority of Facebook users tend to have.”

Here are a few more findings in the report:

  • On average users make 7 new Facebook friends per month; they initiated 3 requests and accepted 4.
  • 80% of friend requests that are initiated are accepted.
  • Women average 21 updates to their Facebook status per month while men average 6.
  • Personal messages on Facebook are generally not replacing email, over half of Facebook users in our sample did not send a private message, 59% did receive a message.
  • On average Facebook users contribute about 4 comments/likes for every status update that they make.
  • In a month, about half of our sample made a comment on a friend’s content, and about half received a comment.
  • Less than 5% of users hid content from another user on their Facebook feed.

Analysis of Facebook activity logs also provided insight into the question of whether Facebook use tends to decline with time or as the size of friends lists increases. There was no evidence of Facebook fatigue amongst those users from our sample who had been using Facebook the longest. The more Facebook friends users have, the more they perform every activity that we explored: friending, liking, private messages, commenting, posting, photo tagging, joining groups, and poking. The longer people had been using the Facebook site, the more frequently they used the like button, commented on friends’ content, posted status updates, and tagged their friends in photos.

“This examination of people’s activities in a very new realm affirms one of the oldest truths about the value of friendship: Those who are really active socially have a better shot at getting the help and emotional support they need,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet Project. “The Golden Rule seems to rule digital spaces, too.”